Chapter III: Political Economy as a Science

Science, Normative and Positive

Some wag somewhere has remarked that economists suffer from “physics envy.” One could certainly make that charge against W. S. Jevons (1835-1882), one of the founders of marginal economics, when he wrote that a “perfect system of statistics … is the only … obstacle in the way of making economics an exact science”; once the statistics have been gathered, the generalization of laws from them “will render economics a science as exact as many of the physical sciences.”[1] More than a century has passed since Jevons wrote these words, and in that time there has been a growth of vast bureaucracies, both public and private, devoted to establishing this “perfect system” of statistics. Yet today economics seems no closer to being an exact science than it was in Jevons’s day. Despite this failure, economic orthodoxy clings to the notion of itself as a positive science. As Milton Friedman puts it,

Positive economics is in principle independent of any particular ethical position or normative judgments. As [J. N.] Keynes says, it deals with “what is,” not with “what ought to be.” Its task is to provide a system of generalizations that can be used to make correct predictions about the consequences of any change in circumstances. Its performance is to be judged by the precision, scope, and conformity with experience of the predictions it yields. In short, positive economics is, or can be, an “objective” science, in precisely the same sense as any of the physical sciences.[2]

Underlying Friedman’s view are two distinctions: a distinction between facts and values (the “is” and the “ought to be” of things), and a corresponding distinction between a “normative” science and a “positive” one, with the former reflecting the world of values and the latter the world of facts. So which kind of science is economics, normative or positive?

Let me suggest that the question is meaningless. Every science, insofar as it really is a science, is both positive and normative. Every science, insofar as it is a science, must be “normalized” to some criteria of truth. These truths will arise from two sources: an internal and an external source. The internal criteria involve a science’s proper subject matter and methodology. But these criteria are insufficient to found any science as a science. In addition, there must be external criteria of truth, and these truths can only come from one or more higher sciences. In the absence of such an external check, the science will merely be circular, dependent on nothing but itself and disconnected from the hierarchy of truth. Thus, for example, biology is responsible to chemistry, chemistry to physics, physics to metaphysics. No biologist can violate the laws of chemistry, and no chemist can reach a conclusion contrary to physics. Thus every science is responsible to its own methodology (and therefore “positive”) and to the higher sciences (and therefore “normative”). Every science has, therefore, both its own proper autonomy, based on its subject matter and methodology and its own proper connection to the near sciences, based on the hierarchy of truth. In speaking of the autonomy of a science, we should note that it is only a relative autonomy, not an absolute one. A scientist’s obligation to be faithful to his proper method does not relieve him of the obligation to higher truths. No science can provide its own criteria of truth without being merely circular. When a science attempts to do so, one of two things happens. The first possibility is that the science breaks up into mutually warring camps whose disputes can never be resolved because there are no accepted criteria of truth by which to resolve them. The second possibility is that the science becomes merely dogmatic, and no rational examination of its premises is permitted. In economics, both things have happened: the science is divided into warring factions with no arbiter of truth among them; the principles of the various factions have become dogmatic statements with little connection to reality.

The Physical and Humane Sciences

The hierarchy of science allows us to define what science is, because science is not a mere random collection of “facts,” nor just a free-floating knowledge. Rather, it is knowledge integrated into a hierarchy of truth. To know a thing, anything, it is not sufficient to know the thing in itself, but also how it “fits” with everything else, what its relationships are with the rest of the world. Science then is not just knowledge, but organized knowledge. It is precisely this organization that makes it science. We have many other kinds of knowledge, such as tacit or intuitive knowledge, but these are not scientific until they can be integrated into the hierarchy of knowledge, and thereby submit themselves to the tests of truth that come from the higher sciences. Until we know the thing in the fullness of its relationships, we don’t really know it at all. Therefore science is not just about describing things in themselves, but about describing things in their full relationships with everything else. Now, everything that is, is related to everything else that is, in one way or another. Nevertheless, we can identify two general hierarchies of knowledge, two great branches of science, the physical and the humane sciences. So the first thing to determine about any science is not whether it is normative or positive, but whether it is a physical or a humane science.

The distinction between these two branches of science concerns how the objects of the science are moved to their ends. Physical objects are moved to their ends by “laws” outside of themselves, such as the law of gravity. They do not exhibit any degrees of freedom; that is to say, the planets are kept in their orbits by the law of gravity and no planet can suddenly decide to reverse its course and visit a new region of the heavens. In other words, the motions of physical objects are completely deterministic; they are bound by the laws of nature and cannot deviate from them. We can examine nature and discover its laws, laws that exist independently of will and intention. This examination of nature we may call “naturalism,” and these sciences all terminate in physics, the master-science for the study of physical objects.

Man, of course, is another physical object in the universe of objects, and is bound by the law of gravity no less than any of the planets. However, he is also something more, because while a planet cannot determine its own course, we must determine ours. That is, we are not moved to our ends by a law like gravity, but by the choices we make. Man is that being that can choose his own ends and make judgments about the best means to achieve those ends. This freedom towards ends and means is the essence of what it means to be human. The humane sciences, therefore, have a completely different aim than the physical sciences. The latter aim at discovering the physical laws that must be followed and are always in fact followed; the former aim at discovering laws that ought to be followed if we are to achieve the ends we set for ourselves, and of detailing the consequences of not following those laws. Humane sciences have the human person for their object, and specifically the human person in relationship, whether that is the relationship a person has with himself, his family, his community, the natural environment, or God. Now, political economy deals with economic relationships, those relationships necessary for the material provisioning of society. It is therefore a humane science and not a physical science. Like all humane sciences, it is about right relationships.

Facts without Values?

At this point, the positivist is likely to object that no one can tell us what kinds of relationships are “right” or “wrong.” We can only note the facts and predict the consequences. Therefore science, economic or otherwise, should simply stick to the “facts” and let the “moral” chips fall where they may. This view is based on a distinction between facts and values. As D. Stephen Long has noted, “The fact-value distinction has become so determinative in the modern world that we seldom even recognize the many ways our politics, economics, even our theology assume and perpetuate this distinction.”[3] The fact-value distinction actually has its roots in medieval theology. The medieval theologians insisted that the material world reflects the eternal order of God and operates on God-given laws which could be known without any direct reference to theology. This allowed a certain autonomy for the physical sciences. However, this distinction was not a real distinction, but a methodological one, and a method that is confined to physical motions; the motions of the human will could not so easily be measured and numbered. With the Enlightenment sages, however, the distinction became a real one, became an ontological distinction, one that extended even to human motions. All motions, even human ones, would be reduced to number and quantity and divorced from theology and ethics. As David Hume put it,

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.[4]

This test, known as “Hume’s fork,” is by now so enshrined in our thinking that it has become traditional, with even Christian economists joining in his book-burning without a second thought.

Perhaps the best example of the Christian expression of this distinction comes from Alejandro Chafuen, who posits a distinction in natural law itself between the “analytical” and the “normative.” For Chafuen, “ethical considerations… have no impact on underlying truths”[5] and “no ethical judgment can invalidate an economic law,[6] a law arrived at without regard to ethics. However, a question arises as to whether Chafuen (and the moderns in general) have a proper understanding of natural law, or has he merely confused it with naturalism? Can there be a “value-free” law for humans? The answer to this question depends on one’s theology. The older view of natural law situated it within a discernment of the meanings of things, that is, within their proper acts and ends. Thus, natural law would always involve a teleology, a perception of final meaning, but such perceptions involve philosophical, theological, and cultural questions. The Enlightenment view of nature sought to divorce natural law from any moral or theological authority. Is this actually possible?

Let us take a simple deduction from “nature”: “Lions eat lambs; therefore the strong prey on the weak.” The conclusion would seem to be an unavoidable deduction from the indubitably factual premise, a pure instance of a “natural law,” blissfully free of any moral or theological foundation. But in fact it contains a hidden assumption: the premise concerns animals, but the conclusion is applied to men. Is this valid? Yes, if man is no more than an animal; no, if man transcends the animals. If the latter is true, then natural law can never be just a “reading” of nature, but must be guided by a consideration of the end and nature of man. Can the issue be resolved one way or another by an appeal to pure reason? No, because both views rest on a purely theological foundation. Man may or may not be just an advanced animal and nothing more. Certainly, he is an advanced animal, but the status of the “something more” cannot be proved—or disproved. Certainly, both men and lions enjoy a leg of lamb for lunch; quite possibly, speech is no more than an advanced form of roaring or baying. There is simply no “proof” that men transcend, or do not transcend, the animals; it is a matter of faith and faith alone. Therefore, the question of whether the proposition is a valid deduction from nature depends not on the raw facts (which cannot be disputed) but on the theology by which one reads those facts. And this will be true for every statement which purports to be a “value-free” conclusion from the natural world. The only question is whether the values are explicit or hidden; if the latter, men will delude themselves into thinking that their thinking is “value-free,” when in fact it is a mere attempt to impose their values on others. The solution is never to proclaim a “value-free” conclusion, but to make the values that underlie the conclusion explicit, thereby exposing them to critique and evaluation.

Even if the fact-value distinction could be maintained, it is not always clear which are the “facts” and which are the “values.” For example, if we take the distinction seriously, we must allow the following case:[7] Mrs. Harris is an attorney at the top of her profession who bills her time at $500 an hour. Mr. Harris, on the other hand, is a bit of a lout. He calls her at work demanding a bit of “afternoon delight.” Wishing to be a dutiful wife, she considers her options. Since she is not only an attorney, but also understands economics, she believes that her decision ought to turn on the opportunity costs of the alternatives. She can go home for an hour and lose $500, or she can call an escort service to provide a suitable surrogate for $150. Thus she must measure the gain of $350 against the loss of $500 and decide how the “opportunity cost” compares to the relative values of sexual pleasure and infidelity. Now, an economist might say that the “facts” of the case involve the opportunity costs, while the concepts of adultery and fidelity are mere values. But this is not at all clear. The relative prices of lawyers and prostitutes are mere social valuations that change from culture to culture and, indeed, from moment to moment; they seem to lack the ontological grounding that one would expect from a “fact.” On the other hand, adultery is a fact which “has much more concrete or empirical reality than the putative economic facts mentioned. We can point to the historical embodiment of something called ‘adultery’ much more readily than something called ‘opportunity cost.’”[8]

It would seem, therefore, that the world of human beings cannot be neatly divided into a realm of “facts” and a realm of “values.” While there may be, at certain times and in certain cases, a methodological advantage in making such a distinction, it is merely a way of speaking of things for limited purposes and involves no real ontological distinction. Therefore, Chafuen’s case for a division in the natural law would seem to have failed. A realm of pure “facticity” in human affairs is doubtful. All human observation requires some theoretical framework to make sense of the mere sense impressions. The theoretical framework always involves some value judgments.[9] For example, in measuring unemployment, the economist must first start by

making the decision that it needs theoretical explanation and second [he] must define what unemployment is, both of which are blatantly value-laden (and political) activities. Furthermore, the choice of what methods to use to investigate this phenomenon also involves value judgments, as does selection of the critical criteria about what will be accepted as the “final term” in the analysis, the bases of what arguments will or will not be accepted. However, values and value judgments enter into theory construction on the ground floor by giving the theorist the “vision” of the reality s(he) is attempting to explain. This “vision” is pre-analytical in the sense that it exists before theoretical activity takes place.[10]

We are, of course, bombarded each day by a reams of economic “facts” and statistics. Each and every one of them is surrounded by the same constellation of political and value-laden decisions as is the statistic called “unemployment.” This does not make them invalid or useless, but we must understand the value-laden decisions that went into making each of these numbers. The numbers are not like the numbers we get from looking at a telescope or a oscilloscope or some instrument used in the physical sciences. Rather, each number reflects a judgment about what the purpose and meaning of “economics” is.

Humane Science and Teleology

The major division of the sciences, then, is not the normative-positive duality, but a division based on the object of the sciences, whether they be merely physical or fully human. For the physical sciences, we need only examine the physical world to note the relationships and regularities, and we have, in most cases, ample room for discovering laws and testing them empirically. But when we deal with the humane sciences, the task becomes more complex, for a simple examination of persons cannot be undertaken without first determining what a “right” state of affairs ought to be. For example, if we practice medicine, we must have some idea of what good health is; we must have some “normative” state the departure from which constitutes disease. This seems a straightforward process in physical medicine (although it is actually fraught with many difficulties and conundrums), but can become somewhat complex when we look at, say, psychology. For example, if we take two psychologists, one of whom believes that mental health means giving expression to every sexual impulse, and another who believes that sexuality should mainly be expressed in marriage and family, it is obvious that they will give very different kinds of advice. I have no intention of trying to sort out those issues here; I merely point out that the advice given will depend on each psychologist’s perception of what it means to be a human being, on what the end and purpose of our humanity is.

This is the case with every humane science. Its first task is to understand the end and purpose of the human person, in all of his or her relationships, and that particular science’s role in contributing to those ends and purposes. This search for ends and purposes is called teleology, from the Greek telos, a word which connotes “that which completes or perfects a thing.” Each humane science begins, as it were, backwards, with the ends of man, whether those be the ends of his physical or mental health, his social order, his political peace, his need to pursue truth and knowledge, etc. Underneath all of these ends there lies the necessity of a certain material sufficiency. Without having some security of food, clothing, and shelter, it is difficult to pursue any of the other ends of man. Now, all of these other ends may be higher than these bare necessities, but every other end presumes the necessities, for no man can long pursue anything else if he cannot get enough to eat. Hence, the pursuit of these ends is basic to the pursuit of every other end, and the more easily they can be obtained, the more time and energy can be devoted to the pursuit of other goals. Now, the political economy is the science which deals with the pursuit of man’s material needs, and so it is foundational to every other humane science; even the priest, the philosopher, and the artist need to eat. Therefore, in order to understand the science of political economy, we must ask in greater detail just what the purpose of this science is, which is the topic of our next chapter.

[1] Quoted in James E. Alvey, "A Short History of Economics as a Moral Science," Journal of Markets and Morality 2, no. 1 (Spring, 1999): 62.

[2] Milton Friedman, Essays in Positive Economics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 4.

[3] D. Stephen Long, Divine Economy: Theology and the Market, ed. Catherine Pickstock John Milbank, Graham Ward, Radical Orthodoxy (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 3.

[4] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748 [cited April 3 2006]); available from

[5] Alejandro A. Chafuen, Faith and Liberty: The Economic Thought of the Late Scholastics (New York: Lexington Books, 2003), 24.

[6] Ibid., 25.

[7] Adopted from Long, Divine Economy, 4-5.

[8] Ibid., 5.

[9] Charles M.A. Clark, "Catholic Social Thought and the Economic Problem," Oikonomia, no. 1 (2005),

[10] Charles M.A. Clark, "Economic Insights from the Catholic Social Thought Tradition: Towards a More Just Economy," (2005).


Donald Goodman Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 8:16:00 AM CDT  


Excellent considerations all. The only thing I would note is that it's certainly possible to prove man's transcendence of animals by reason alone; indeed, the mere fact that man has reason is sufficient, as the Thomists have shown that reason, by which I mean the rational faculty, cannot exist in a purely natural being, but requires a supernatural one. Thus, man is the lowest-order creature which is rational, given that he is partly material and partly spiritual.

St. Thomas More, for example, argued in his Utopia that only two supernatural propositions should be enforced by a pagan state, because only these two could be proven beyond doubt by reason alone: that God exists, and that man has a supernatural soul which survives bodily death. Anyone who denied either of these would be considered a base and crass fellow by his ideal pagans, the Utopians.

Naturally, your point still stands as written in one sense: that whether you can prove man as essentially above the other animals depends on whether you accept the first principles of Thomistic thinking or not. The average physics-envying economist clearly does not.

If, on the other hand, you mean to say that man can't *empirically* be proven higher than the animals in the same way that the momentum of a closed system can be proven to be a given value, I think you're correct. But it might be a good idea to clarify this.

William Peaden Wednesday, June 18, 2008 at 5:32:00 AM CDT  

"Therefore, the question of whether the proposition is a valid deduction from nature depends not on the raw facts (which cannot be disputed) but on the theology by which one reads those facts."

I think that is a clarifying statement actually, although I must confess that I came away with the impression that we could not 'prove' man's ontological dignity. However, it would be true to say that this is not a 'self-evident', or rather an empirically deductible idea. I'm not sure that saying that man's ontologically dignity is 'faith and faith alone' is very useful either. Man's faculty of reason is sufficient to prove man's dignity, the very fact that you could convey abstract ideas to me via the means of language and I can respond to it in kind suggest a higher 'non-physical' aspect to man against animal existence.

If you are demolishing scientism however, which you do most excellently, and succinctly, then we cannot assume that our 'scientific' fellows use the faculty of commonsense, but rather uncommon-sense. They do actually think that they can take the lowest ontological level in existence, mere matter, and ‘apply’ it to all aspects of existence, including as you say the human person. This ridiculous ‘begging of the question’, essentially; materialism is true, therefore all existence is material, is at the heart of so many controversies.

I think, Donald Goodman, that in fact you need not be a Thomist but merely a human being, who has not dulled his senses, to realise that man has a ‘higher’ ontological place in the universe. The Jews were given that in revelation, the Greeks in Reason, and practically every society in the world (that hasn’t been in decline) knew this. Christianity of course prefects all notions of our ontological state, regardless of whether we are Thomists, because it puts us into direct contact with The Personal God, we recognise our nothingness, compared with His Pure Existence. Still, maybe this is non-entity, I don’t think John Médaille was implying for a second that we don’t have a higher existence to animals.

Donald Goodman Wednesday, June 18, 2008 at 7:51:00 AM CDT  

I'm sure that he was not implying that we're merely animals; it just sounded, from his words, that he was saying it's impossible to prove otherwise absent revelation. I was disagreeing.

"I think, Donald Goodman, that in fact you need not be a Thomist but merely a human being, who has not dulled his senses, to realise that man has a ‘higher’ ontological place in the universe. The Jews were given that in revelation, the Greeks in Reason, and practically every society in the world (that hasn’t been in decline) knew this."

I never said you had to be a Thomist, just that you had to accept certain Thomistic first principles. The Jews having been told this in revelation is inapposite here, seeing that we're questioning whether reason alone can show it. My point was that yes, reason alone *can* show that man is above the animals; but only if reason begins with appropriate first principles, principles which were most perfectly and thoroughly explicated by St. Thomas Aquinas. I never said that those principles were exclusive to Thomism; indeed, so saying would show a lamentable misunderstanding of Thomism itself.

The Greeks knew it through the application of reason based on the same first principles relied upon by Thomas. Ditto the Arabs. Others claimed to find it in their religions. But any society that could successfully prove, in a non-fallacious way, the superiority of man to the animals did so by starting with good first principles; namely, those relied upon by St. Thomas.

I don't think your identified clarification ("Therefore, the question of whether the proposition is a valid deduction from nature depends not on the raw facts (which cannot be disputed) but on the theology by which one reads those facts.") reaches the point at issue, because it specifically refers to the "theology" by which one interprets the data. That's precisely the point I was trying to make: that given good first principles, reason can show man's superiority to the other animals without the aid of theology. The point is that scientists don't have good first principles (which I think this chapter observed). I just thought that chapter should be clearer about this.

William Peaden Wednesday, June 18, 2008 at 8:40:00 AM CDT  

Indeed, in that I think your correct, I misunderstood the emphasis of your point. The chapter does a good job in demolishing the narrowness of many scientists/economists. However, the chapter did leave me a little cold when it came to the idea that man's superiority needed theology, or mere faith to be understood. So I do agree that this may need to be addressed. Perhaps, since good theology is based on good metaphysics/first principles that could be were the clarification could be made. Still, I leave that to the hands of our capable host.

John Médaille Wednesday, June 18, 2008 at 8:37:00 PM CDT  

It is, I believe, impossible to "prove" (in any meaningful sense) that we are more than animals. It is possible, however, to know this. Our knowledge does not come from a chain of reasoning from any alleged "first principles," but rather from simple experience. We experience, prior to any real reflection, both our continuities and differences with the animal kingdom. No one can have any real doubt that we are animals, mammals with the same material needs and dependencies as any other animal. Yet it is equally clear that we do not meet those needs in quite the same way as any of the other animals. Parallels can be found of course. Termites build impressive structures, many animals have highly developed social structures, monkeys use tools, etc. and all of these can be taken as precursors to what humans do. But it is hard to look at the array of human artifacts and take seriously the notion that we are just a bit more advanced than our simian cousins.

And then there is the minor fact that we can ask the question. Now, we can't be certain that monkeys and dolphins don't ask hard questions, don't engage in self-examination. But we can say that they leave no record of this; they have no way to communicate their deliberations.

And that brings us to the final difference, and the most important. Speech, the word, language. Higher animals can be taught to use language, so I am told, and even to use it in rather sophisticated ways. But they don't, and they have no need to. Only in contact with man do they acquire these capabilities.

Donald Goodman Thursday, June 19, 2008 at 9:24:00 AM CDT  

I think, when you say that you can't prove man's superiority to animals but can know it by experience, that you're not talking about the same thing I am.

If you know it by experience, do you mean that you've taken your experience of man and animals and reasoned from that experience to a rational conclusion? If so, how is that different from proving it?

There are a number of ways of distinguishing man, the rational animal, from the other animals by reason alone.

As you note, critical to the question is the ability to think about this at all. Animals are certainly sensate; they can certainly "know," in the same way that we can know, concrete and specific objects. Indeed, I'd venture to say that the squirrel knows the nut that he finds on the tree better than I do, when I see it. But no animal can proceed from its knowledge of certain things to knowledge of another; that is, they cannot abstract from the concrete and specific to the abstract and universal. The fact that we can do these things make us man; that is, rational animals. Those things which cannot do this are simply animals of some other species.

You note two other factors also: use of tools and use of language. While *some* animals use material implements and *some* animals do "communicate" with noises or gestures, these are different in kind, not merely in degree, from what men do.

As far as tools, very few animals use them at all; those that do (mostly primates) use them universally for a single purpose. E.g., an ape might use a stick to extract ants from an anthill, but he will never use it to dislodge fruit from a tree, or to hit a competing ape. Nor do they "construct" tools for a particular purpose; they don't have ant-getting sticks different in form and function from fruit-getting sticks. Man alone does this, and this type of tool construction and usage is different in kind, not in degree, from that of the ape. It requires rationality.

Language is similar. While even some quite low-order animals, like bees and ants, seem to communicate in certain ways, they cannot express *ideas*, nor can they express anything arbitrarily. Only man can do this, because only man is rational. Even the linguistics agree that the simplistic symbol manipulation accomplished by some apes does not qualify as language, though it does have some characteristics of it.

Both of these are made possible by our rationality. We can make tools for a specific purpose because we're able to abstract our consideration from the concrete task of getting these ants out of this anthill to the best method and tool for getting insects out of dirt. We can express ideas because we're able to abstract them from the concrete and particular things we see around us; indeed, many ideas we can express without even abstracting them from particulars, but by reasoning to their existence without observation of them from observed particulars, the way we reason to the existence of the soul from the existence of so many men of the same nature and the qualities common to all those men.

Finally, one can argue (again, as St. Thomas did) that man's natural condition necessitates him as being fundamentally different from other animals. God gave to the other animals all that they needed to survive; he gave them sharp teeth, or herbivorous teeth; he gave them fur to keep them warm, thick hides to keep them safe, claws to defend themselves. Man he gave none of these things; man is hairless, his skin is thin and weak, he is incapable of surviving without the extensive use of tools and language. This is further evidence that God, whose existence can certainly be proven by reason alone (indeed, Vatican I declared this possibility de fide), created man different from the other animals, and that this difference is the rationality that allows tool and language use as discussed above.

You argue that "[o]ur knowledge does not come from a chain of reasoning from any alleged 'first principles,' but rather from simple experience." Reasoning from "simple experience" itself requires certain first principles, most particularly that what we are observing and experiencing is what actually exists, something that many philosophical traditions, some quite popular today and at other times, would strongly dispute. Without that first principle (among others), we can't "know" anything from simple experience.

Furthermore, what you describe as knowing man's superiority from simple experience seems indistinguishable from reasoning to it from first principles; indeed, it seems a less formal version of the reasoning given above. You note observing a difference, quite strong, between man's use of tools and language and that of the animals. This observation leads one to the conclusion that man is higher in some way. But I'd ask you, how does it lead to that? By reasoning from your first principles based on your observations to a conclusion. Thus, you've proven man's superiority to the animals, even if you've not demonstrated it by simple syllogism.

None of the above is in the nature of a demonstration, of course; it's all dialectical. While I think a demonstrative proof would be possible, it's too involved even for this overextended reply. But it's certainly strong enough that, absent evidence or argument to the contrary, one could legitimately say that one has proven man's superiority to the animals by reason alone.

For this reason, I don't think we really disagree; I just think we're using different words. What you seem to mean by "knowing from simple experience" I'd argue is what I mean by "reasoning from first principles and observations toa conclusion."

John Médaille Thursday, June 19, 2008 at 1:41:00 PM CDT  

Donald, you say None of the above is in the nature of a demonstration, of course; it's all dialectical. Exactly. I don't think a demonstration is possible because demonstrative logic only applies to questions of formal relations. For questions of this type, we must turn to the practical reason, which means turning to dialectics.

The problem with "reasoning from first principles" is that it turns Aquinas from a synthetic theologian to an analytic philosopher. I think this is the biggest mistake of Thomism. I no longer call myself a thomist, mainly because I am not sure that Thomas would recognize himself it what has become Thomism. The problem is compounded by the fact that the Summas, as literary forms, present themselves as analytic rather than synthetic. However, this ignores what is actually be accomplished and the pedagogical problem that Thomas actually faced.

The 13th century was rocked by the introduction of Aristotelianism, largely through the Muslim commentaries of ibn al-Cena and Ibn al-Rushd. It was regarded as dangerous stuff. Thomas was attempting a grand synthesis of Aristotle, the Muslim commentators, the Patristic fathers (especially Gregory Nazianzen), Maimonodes, and the ecumenical councils. His method was analytic, but his aim was synthetic.

The second issue is his pedagogical problem. His students had an intuitive grasp of the Christian synthesis, but lacked an analytic. Thomas was attempting an educational reform, because he was unhappy with the standard theological text of the day, The Sentences of Peter Lombard. The Summa Theologica was supposed to be the Freshman text (read the first page), but it quickly got out of hand. Thomas attempted a "reader's digest" version with the Compendium, but that was getting away from him as well, when he gave up the whole project and started writing nothing but hymns and poetry.

Because of the literary form of the Summas, analytics quickly took over theology, with disastrous results. After all, there are but one hundred years between the death of St. Thomas and the death of William of Ockham; that's a large change in a short period of time.

Thomas disappeared, more or less, for three centuries, to be revived in the 16th century, mostly as a stick to beat Luther. But by the time of his revival, theology had become thoroughly rationalistic, which colored the reading of Thomas. This emphasis on rationalistic analysis is at least partly responsible for the Englightenment.

I think the real thomistic task is to recover the 13th century reading of Thomas, the master theological synthesizer, and downplay the rationalistic and analytic philosopher. Obviously, there are many who disagree with this.

Donald Goodman Friday, June 20, 2008 at 8:45:00 AM CDT  


"I think the real thomistic task is to recover the 13th century reading of Thomas, the master theological synthesizer, and downplay the rationalistic and analytic philosopher. Obviously, there are many who disagree with this."

Including Leo XIII, who went to extraordinary lengths to show that all Catholics should consider St. Thomas the basis of all Catholic philosophy and theology, particularly in Aeterni Patris, where his praise of St. Thomas borders on hyperbolic.

It's true, of course, that St. Thomas was attempting a synthesis, though I'd disagree with you pretty heavily on his source material; his real effort was to synthesize the Aristotelian thought of St. Albert the Great (one of his teachers), which included of course some contributions from the Muslim philosophers, largely Avicenna, and Maimonides, and the dominant Augustinian theological and philosophical traditions of his day. Indeed, he cites St. Augustine more than any source other than the Scriptures, including St. Gregory Nazianzen. In this, he succeeded with incredible brilliance, as shown at some length by MacIntyre in the monumental _Whose Justice? Which Rationality?_

By what authority do you claim that the Summa "got out of hand"? My understanding is that he died before finishing it, still working on it (hence the comment about all his work being mere straw when he came face to face with its Subject). He certainly never abandoned it; indeed, it was finished by his disciples following his death.

To say that St. Thomas disappeared until Trent is simply false. Fifty years before Trent even opened, even a humanist, thoroughly dedicated to the Fathers, such as St. Thomas More praised St. Thomas as a philosopher and theologian of extraordinary wisdom and elegance. And if Trent really "revived" St. Thomas from nowhere, then it seems odd that they would give the Summa Theologica the singular honor of being the only book other than the Scriptures to be rested open upon the altar during the Council's deliberations, to draw from it (as Leo XIII again said) wisdom in all matters they might consider. This is plainly not a mere "stick to beat Luther," much though his writings deserve such beating; this is a font of wisdom, true philosophy, and true theology rooted in human reason. Fides quaerens intellectum in its finest and most developed sense.

To blame William of Ockham's pseudo-Aristotelian nominalism on the "literary" form of St. Thomas's Summas strikes me as significantly overextending the case, rather like blaming the excesses of the Fraticelli on St. Francis of Assisi. After all, the Fraticelli developed less than a century after St. Francis. But it's well known that the Devil works hardest to corrupt that which he fears most; it is unsurprising, then, that things like Franciscanism and Thomism were so quickly subverted.

I'd also posit that referring to the Summa's method as its "literary form" is ignoring most of St. Thomas's own tradition. He was brought into philosophy in the tradition of the Schoolmen, including (unfortunately) one of the first, Peter Abelard. This also included early pre-schoolmen like Hugh of St. Victor and proceeded through St. Albert the Great. The methods employed the Summa were far from innovative; indeed, they were very traditional, based on the form of the public disputations that Abelard had made famous before his fall from grace. They were a method of determining and testing first principles through dialectic (the questions and responses), then proceeding from those principles to a demonstration or a further dialectical proof (the sed contra and respondeo). Demonstrations are available in *all* matters to which logic may be applied; that is, to all matters whatsoever, though as a practical matter we are often unable to come to them. St. Thomas himself not infrequently used the phrase "Q.E.D.," "quod erat demonstrandum," to show when he believed he had established a demonstration. St. Thomas's writings are brilliant, the model for all Catholic philosophy (as Leo XIII pointed out, and as indeed was enshrined in canon law until recently), *because* of their form, not in spite of it.

I don't call myself a Thomist because I'm not a philosopher. But I am a disciple of St. Thomas, and based on the teachings of countless popes and the timeless example of the theologians since that time, I turn to St. Thomas first after prayer and the catechisms when I seek wisdom.

In any case, a proof by dialectic (as the many of man's superiority so far discussed) is certainly a proof; one just can't say that it's rationally *necessary*. Absent some equally weighty dialectical argument to the contrary, denying a dialectical proof because it's not a demonstration is not good philosophy.

John Médaille Friday, June 20, 2008 at 9:38:00 AM CDT  

Donald, I have generally given up on speaking of Thomas with Thomists, since to question even the smallest part of the Summa is to invite having your orthodoxy questioned, usually accompanied by great invective. However, trusting to your good judgment and moderate temperament, I will hazard a few comments. The irony, of course, is that Thomas would have been the first to object to this attitude, since he himself was so often the victim of it, due not only to his Aristotelianism, but also his disagreements with Peter Lombard and St. Augustine. Remember, Thomas himself was condemned (posthumously) in 1277.

Leo's statement is not dogmatic, and not even doctrinal, and one is free to agree or disagree.

I am not quite sure how you can disagree with me on the sources, since Thomas himself gives names to his major sources: The Philosopher (Aristotle), The Commentator (Avicenna), The Theologian (Gregory), The Master of the Sentences (Peter Lombard), and one of two others, I think, whose names escape at the moment. Of course, he cites many other sources, but these are pre-eminent.

As to the literary form, Thomas himself gave up on it a year before his death; the Summa is completed by another. He was also experimenting with another form, the Compendium, which was far more synthetic.

Of course Thomas doesn't disappear, but he loses his pre-eminence. If you read the scholars of even one generation later, such as Duns Scotus, Thomas is not often cited and is not a major dialogic partner. He doesn't regain that pre-eminence until the 16th century, and then fades again until the 19th century.

It is not the literary form of the Summa that leads to Ockham. The form of the Summa survived only a few decades; indeed, Thomas is the first to give up on it. Rather, it is the analytic rationalism implied by the form (which is not what Thomas was trying to accomplish.)

Yes, Trent laid Thomas on the Altar side-by-side with Scripture, a suspicious act in itself, and one, I believe which would have appalled St. Thomas. But be that as it may, I am convinced that what the Cardinals of Trent placed on the altar was not Thomas the Theologian, but Thomas the analytic philosopher; that is, not the real man or the real saint, but an artificial re-creation him, a mere shadow of the real man, a man capable (as you know) of casting a big shadow all my himself.

Thomas deserves the pre-eminence he has, and no question of theology should be considered without reference to his thought. However, theology, like any true science, advances with time, and Thomas would be the first to object to freezing theology in the 13th century. As I said, he himself was the victim of that sort of antiquarianism (the shadow of real traditionalism) and knew well its dangers.

Donald Goodman Friday, June 20, 2008 at 12:48:00 PM CDT  

"Donald, I have generally given up on speaking of Thomas with Thomists, since to question even the smallest part of the Summa is to invite having your orthodoxy questioned, usually accompanied by great invective."

Well, one can hardly condone invective. But no, questioning Thomas is not itself questioning orthodoxy, obviously, though the Holy Office, especially since St. Pius X, did consider it an indicia of modernism, though insufficient in itself to prove it. And even after St. Pius X many have praised it to the skies both theologically and philosophically; even Vatican II, not known for its rampaging Thomism to say the least, stated that the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas was "Perennial Philosophy." Optatam totius.

"and St. Augustine. Remember, Thomas himself was condemned (posthumously) in 1277."

By the bishop of Paris, never by the Pope.

"Leo's statement is not dogmatic, and not even doctrinal, and one is free to agree or disagree."

Distinctions are necessary here, I think. His statement is certainly doctrinal, in that it relates to the best way to understand Catholic doctrine. It's certainly not dogmatic, of course, since it proposes no truth of faith or morals nor does it condemn any proposition contrary thereto. But I think saying that one is simply free to agree or disagree is a bit much. With such extremely strong statements on a topic coming from a pope, following on equally powerful language for five hundred years, on top of the mandatory basis of theological and philosophical studies, makes a decision to disagree of particular moment. Disagreeing would not, of course, be heretical; but it would not be something legitimately taken lightly, nor to be taken but after long and serious consideration. Given what I've read of your works, though, I have no doubt that you've given it such consideration, if indeed you do disagree with it.

"I am not quite sure how you can disagree with me on the sources, since Thomas himself gives names to his major sources:"

Where? I'm not aware of him listing them in this way, though naturally he cites them throughout his work.

In any case, I didn't disagree with you that he used these men as sources, just that the main thrust of his "synthesis," as you call it (do you mean this the way MacIntyre does?), was to reconcile the Aristotelianism of St. Albert the Great with the Augustinianism which came down to him through pre-Aristotelian tradition, and which was still dominant at that time.

"The Philosopher (Aristotle)"

Of course, I specifically mentioned him.

"The Commentator (Avicenna)"

In my experience, "The Commentator" has referred to Averroes. Avicenna was unquestionably a common source, however, and I usually see him more often than Averroes in my reading.

"The Theologian (Gregory)"

A search of the Index Thomisticus is unable to turn up the use of the term "theologicus" (theologian) except (once) in reference to the author of the Book of Wisdom. St. Gregory Nazianzen was designated "Theologian" at the Council of Chalcedon, but is not referred to in this way by St. Thomas. The Index Thomisticus indicates that he is mentioned 55 times in the complete Corpus Thomisticum. St. Augustine, for comparison, is mentioned 11,126 times, considerably more even than Aristotle (under "Philosophus"), 9653 times.

"The Master of the Sentences (Peter Lombard)"

Of course. Indeed, the equivalent of his doctoral thesis was, as was the tradition in Paris, on the Sententia of Peter Lombard, who was generally called "the Master." This work is of considerably more bulk than the Summa.

"As to the literary form, Thomas himself gave up on it a year before his death; the Summa is completed by another. He was also experimenting with another form, the Compendium, which was far more synthetic."

Do you have a source for this "gave up" language? My understanding, as I said, was that he died while working on it, thus it was finished by another. I had no indication in any biography I've read that says he abandoned it deliberately until he became unable to work on it.

The Compendium is hardly a "new form." It appears similar in form to his Commentaries, and is simply in more simple essay format.

"major dialogic partner. He doesn't regain that pre-eminence until the 16th century, and then fades again until the 19th century."

That much is true, of course.

"It is not the literary form of the Summa that leads to Ockham. The form of the Summa survived only a few decades; indeed, Thomas is the first to give up on it."

First, once again, I've never seen any indication that he ever "gave up on it." Further, the form of the Summa was quite common, and was simply a written version of the extremely common and popular oral disputations which were regularly done in universities. The disputation began long before St. Thomas and continued long after his death.

"Rather, it is the analytic rationalism implied by the form (which is not what Thomas was trying to accomplish.)"

I'm not sure why you think this form implies analytic rationalism, something that really wouldn't even arise until five hundred years after St. Thomas went on to his reward. Would you mind elaborating?

"Yes, Trent laid Thomas on the Altar side-by-side with Scripture, a suspicious act in itself, and one, I believe which would have appalled St. Thomas."

Suspicious of what? And why would the Fathers of the greatest post-patristic ecumenical council in history using one's works as a highly-honored source be appalling?

"But be that as it may, I am convinced that what the Cardinals of Trent placed on the altar was not Thomas the Theologian, but Thomas the analytic philosopher; that is, not the real man or the real saint, but an artificial re-creation him, a mere shadow of the real man, a man capable (as you know) of casting a big shadow all my himself."

Why are you convinced of this? After all, Trent's decrees are 100% in line with the principles and conclusions of St. Thomas Aquinas. In any case, St. Thomas the man was a scholastic philosopher and theologian; if they were emulating him on that score, then they were emulating the real man.

"However, theology, like any true science, advances with time, and Thomas would be the first to object to freezing theology in the 13th century."

It does indeed sometimes advance and sometimes regress. Arguably, since St. Thomas it has frequently regressed. But I think you will never find a Thomist who does not believe that Thomists since St. Thomas have greatly advanced from the foundation that St. Thomas laid. The most recent powerhouse on that score would probably be Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, but there are many more. Metaphysically and epistemologically (not politically, sadly), one could cite mid-century Thomists like Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain. And indeed, Alasdair MacIntyre has taken Thomism (though approached in a rather non-scholastic way) into realms none prior to the late 1980s ever considered. And this is not even to mention high-ranking Churchmen who have advanced the school, such as Cardinal Ottaviani, to name just one.

The best example is the Immaculate Conception. St. Thomas had a great deal of trouble explaining how this doctrine was possible, and considered his justification so complicated that he rested without mentioning it in the Summa, which as you mentioned was a beginner's textbook (a testament to his monumental intellect if I've ever heard one). (That proof is contained in at least one earlier work, his Commentary on the Sententia.) Bl. Scotus, on the other hand, was able to beat out an explanation, though unable to satisfactorily explain many other complicated theological questions. Thomists had no difficulty adopting his explanation, mutatis mutandis, and indeed to this day explain the Immaculate Conception in precisely those terms.

No one's talking about *freezing* anything. While I've never found any error in St. Thomas, nor has anyone successfully pointed one out to me (depending on your reading of the Immaculate Conception question, that is), neither I nor anyone else has ever stated that St. Thomas's writings themselves contain all that there is to know. I'm talking about *Thomism*, not *these particular Thomistic writings*.

In any case, it now occurs to me that we're so far afield I'd best stop burdening your comment thread. I'd be happy to keep discussing this over email, or here, if you wish.

Thanks for the rousing conversation, by the way. In these times, one is forced to spend so much time justifying such simple precepts (say, "it's immoral to slaughter babies before the poor things even see the sun") that I rarely get so involved in discussing such a detailed question. It's quite welcome.

ron prenot,  Thursday, June 26, 2008 at 5:50:00 AM CDT  

Mr. Goodman,

"While I've never found any error in St. Thomas, nor has anyone successfully pointed one out to me (depending on your reading of the Immaculate Conception question, that is)"

There are many errors in St. Thomas' writings based on his acceptance of most of what Aristotle and Augustine wrote. He apparently made no errors in reasoning (which is astounding and makes reading him a delight!) but reasoned from faulty premises.

I find I very little to quibble with in your comments and suspect Mr. Medaille probably has not read much, if any, of St. Thomas' works.

John Médaille Thursday, June 26, 2008 at 10:05:00 AM CDT  

Ron, I am a theologian and have done extensive readings in St. Thomas; my copy of the Summa is well-worn. My teachers were nearly all Thomists, some of them among the best in the business, including Frederick Wilhemlsen, who may have been the best metaphysician of his generation, and whose Paradoxical Structure of Existence may be the best (and most readable) book on Thomistic metaphysics (a question where Thomas is preeminent).

I often find that those who give the greatest adulation to Thomas are the ones who have read him the least; they mainly know of him through secondary sources, such as Garigou-Lagrange. Nothing wrong with that, but if one's knowledge is confined to secondary sources, one ought to be cautious in one's conclusions about the primary source.

ron prenot,  Friday, June 27, 2008 at 6:57:00 AM CDT  


"Ron, I am a theologian and have done extensive readings in St. Thomas; my copy of the Summa is well-worn."

I stand corrected. Yes, Wilhelmsen is very good.

Your statement, "Our knowledge does not come from a chain of reasoning from any alleged 'first principles,'" totally contradicts what Aquinas says a hundred times, for example in De Veritate, "Whatever things we know with scientific knowledge properly so called we know by reducing them to first principles which are naturally present to the understanding." Generally I've found that when someone rejects Aquinas it's because they've never read him rather than that they can argue persuasively against him.

"Our knowledge does not come from a chain of reasoning from any alleged 'first principles,'"

John Médaille Friday, June 27, 2008 at 8:35:00 AM CDT  

Ron, Thomas is talking about the speculative or demonstrative reason (the only place where we could have "scientific" knowledge, in the scholastic understanding of the term), which only applies precisely to formal relations. Material relations cannot be deduced from first principles.

There is a sense in which "first principles" should be called "last principles." We really don't deduce anything from the law of non-contradiction; rather, it is the standard of (formal) judgment for all other ideas. If an idea turns out to be self-contradictory (that is, if it violates the law of non-contradiction), then it cannot be true. The same is true for the first principle of practical reason.

Often in these discussion, there are insufficient distinctions made between the speculative and practical reason, between formal and material relations. Failure to make these distinctions leads to tremendous errors. Descartes is searching for a "first principle" that covers everything and ends up with a principle that covers nothing. Mises tries to reduce economics to a science of formal relations, and hence ends up rejecting Aristotle and Aquinas out of hand. There's irony for you. A thousand examples of this kind can easily be advanced.

But this is likely not the best forum for this discussion.

ron prenot,  Friday, June 27, 2008 at 10:58:00 AM CDT  

A year or so ago I started to critique Mises' Human Action with Thomistic ideas about human acts but gave it up as a waste of time.

I'm not sure what you mean by material relations but I get the impression you identify speculative with logic. I wouldn't at all agree to that.

I will say no more but instead spend my time reading your book.

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